Jennifer Walker, 24 and expecting her first baby, leaves Washington State University each afternoon imagining death. She imagines outliving her husband, losing this child, where she’ll be buried.
It’s not nerves she’s experiencing. It’s summer school.
Since she enrolled in a death and dying course, she has re-examined the relationships around her and everything she takes for granted.
“I’ll leave this class and go on with my life, but it’s changed me,” said the graduate student.
“You can only die as well as you live.”
The students streaming into Human Development 360 seem casually dressed to be facing death, the last American taboo.
“It’s like sex was in the ‘50s,” said instructor Margaret Young, who calls herself a family scientist. “People are really interested in it, but it isn’t the thing to talk about it.”
At college campuses nationwide, death education has trickled from religious studies and medical courses into general studies.
Since Young began teaching the intense daily course last summer, class enrollment has more than doubled to 42. Social science, education and kinesiology students spend 75 minutes a day on such topics as terminal illness, hospice, stillbirths and cremation.
They visited thousands of graves in the Pullman City Cemetery, peering into concrete grave liners and learning the dimensions of a grave. They visited the embalming room at the only funeral home in Pullman, where funeral director Bob Warnock works and lives with his family.
“The reaction from my friends is ‘Yech, how morbid,”’ said Tracey Tammela, 30, a pre-med major. “But it’s probably a course that should be taken by everyone. It gets you thinking about things.”
Since the turn of the century, death in America has steadily moved from bedrooms and parlors into the hands of professionals. Ninety percent of Americans die in hospitals and nursing homes. The culture’s obsession with youth and life-prolonging technology makes it easier to ignore the inevitable. Mobility has driven people away from such obvious reminders as cemetery visits and family plots.
“We’re a death-denying and a death-defying culture,” Young said.
As the country has grown more secular, fewer Americans see death as a step to the afterlife and more as an end. When death comes, therefore, it’s a crisis. People protect themselves with magical thinking that it either won’t happen to them or that it will be the “good death,” a peaceful one, in your sleep, at 100.
Young knows otherwise.
The first death she experienced, as a 18-year-old nurse trainee, she was so distraught the patient in the next bed wound up comforting her. Thirty more years of caring for people who were dying assured her few were ready for it. Death education in schools tended to be tacked onto courses on aging or human development.
“I felt like it was an important thing for students to know about,” Young said. “Everybody does not get married and not everyone will have children. But everyone dies and will experience the death of someone they know.”
Young uses videotapes, field trips and guest lecturers to cover topics from organ donation to calculating life expectancy to the rising popularity of cremation. Nearly half of all Americans today are cremated.
Senior Kevin Allman, who hopes to someday be a “corporate wellness trainer,” has taken away practical information such as how to talk to children about death and how to plan for the cost of funerals ($7,000 to $8,000).
But he skipped the visit to the funeral home - it was too close to his father who died of a heart attack two years ago. “It brings up those things too,” he said. “Everybody deals with it.”
The week the course started Young asked students what they would do if they had just a week to live. At the course’s end, she’ll ask what they’ve done.
Walker has come to focus on the joy of her husband and parents. Young herself has changed careers, from nurse to professor, and moved from Utah. As soon as the course ends June 20, she’ll go visit her 75-year-old mother in Oregon.
“This class is more about how we should be living than how we die.”
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